Friday, November 30, 2012

CMS is hiring in HR

If you want to help Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools do a better job of recruiting staff and serving the folks they've got,  now's the time to put in an application.

Superintendent Heath Morrison is reorganizing the human resources department after three studies he commissioned identified that office as dysfunctional.  He announced today that will mean a number of new hires.  Among the jobs now posted are three executive directors  (salary range from about $82,000 to $105,000 a year),  a talent acquisition manager and two support team leaders ($62,000 to $79,000).

According to a news release,  the cost of new positions will be offset by cuts elsewhere.

A footnote for die-hard readers:  Despite the leadership shakeup, some traditions live on.  It's Friday afternoon and I'm waiting for school poverty numbers (already postponed by two weeks) and the leaders of the 22 new task forces.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Gorman, CMS and testing: Together again?

When Peter Gorman resigned as superintendent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools last year to take a job with Rupert Murdoch's education technology company,  some people wondered how long before he'd be back as a contractor.

On Wednesday,  an announcement came out that his company has been hired to track student results from new exams being developed for North Carolina and several other states.

The threads get a bit complicated here:  Some of you will recall that under Gorman, CMS launched a new testing program designed to produce a wealth of data about what students were learning and how effective their teachers were. Gorman's vision met with resistance from many teachers and parents over the quality of the new tests and the time it took to administer them.

After Gorman left,  CMS backed away from that testing program, letting the N.C. Department of Public Instruction take the lead. North Carolina is part of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, a state-led coalition working on new exams that will be linked to the national Common Core academic standards. The state is also working on its own exams for subjects other than English and math  (see the Ready program).

On Wednesday, the consortium announced it has awarded a contract to Wireless Generation to track  results from the new exams. "The reporting system will provide student-level results from the Smarter Balanced interim and summative assessments, as well as growth data showing whether students are on track to be college- and career-ready. Reports summarizing student achievement and growth at the classroom, school, district, and state levels will also be available to authorized users,"  the news release says. (The grammar cop in me wants to whack the consortium with a billy club for shortening its name to "Smarter Balanced." Folks, you need a noun.)

Murdoch's News Corp.  (best known as the parent company of the Fox network and the source of England's phone-hacking scandals) acquired Wireless Generation shortly after hiring Joel Klein,  former chancellor of New York City schools,  Gorman and others to launch a new education division.  Wireless is part of what is now known as Amplify,  with Klein as CEO and Gorman as senior vice president for education services.

Meanwhile,  Gorman's successor,  Heath Morrison,  is rolling out his plan for CMS,  which includes better use of data,  intense focus on individual student results and better recognition of the most effective teachers. He'll be relying on the state for much of the testing and data he needs to move forward. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Longer LIFT year faces tough questions

Will some or all students in the nine Project LIFT schools have a 200-day year-round calendar next year?

Denise Watts,  who is in charge of the public-private quest to boost achievement at West Charlotte High and its feeder schools,  had hoped to answer that question this week.  It's taking a bit more time for her to craft a recommendation,  and the year-round project illustrates the challenges of juggling dramatic change,  community buy-in and fiscal responsibility.

If you missed it,  Watts proposed spending up to $4.7 million a year to add 20 days to the school year in hopes that the extra time,  coupled with smart teaching strategies and academic enrichment during breaks,  would yield academic benefits.  The state legislature granted special permission,  but specified that no state money could be spent for the extra days.

Project LIFT,  for Leadership and Investment for Transformation,  has $55 million in private donations pledged over the next five years.  But after I wrote a recent story on year-round options,  co-chair Anna Nelson called to make sure I understood the donors' board has not signed off on covering the cost either. Committing almost $25 million over the next five years would seriously crimp the money available for other aspects of the plan, from teacher recruiting bonuses to family engagement and student technology.

"We don't know where the money would come from,"  Nelson said.  "It's just a constant conversation."

One possibility would be limiting the extended-year calendar to a few schools,  which would cut costs.  Another would be working out a plan with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools to find public money for part of the cost,  Nelson said.

Meanwhile,  Watts has said she'll only move forward with the year-round plan if she gets "overwhelming support"  from families and faculty.  She held several public forums in October,  then tapped CMS' agreement with K12 Insight to survey employees and families.  The survey was offered online,  but many parents used paper,  which takes more time to tally.  "Everyone on my team is entering as fast as we can go,"  Watts said Tuesday.

Her goal is to hold a community meeting to report on what she's found  -- what level of support was voiced,  what solutions she may have found to community concerns -- before taking a proposal to the school board Dec. 11.  If a revised calendar is going to take effect in 2013-14,  the board needs to approve it then so it will be in place for the January magnet lottery.

The process is worth watching,  even for those with no stake in the West Charlotte schools.  Watts is doing exactly the kind of thing Superintendent Heath Morrison is talking about across Mecklenburg County:  Taking bold steps to improve low-performing schools,  working to overcome barriers and reaching out to employees and families,  including those who don't have ready access to digital communication.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

A glimpse at CMS reform details

Bummer.  I finally got Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools'  Race to the Top grant application on Friday and skim-read the massive proposal for changes at 27 schools.  Before I could write a story Monday,  the feds released a list of finalists and CMS didn't make the cut.

Iredell-Statesville and Guilford County are the only N.C. districts among the 61 remaining in the race for about $400 million in federal money, designed to prompt reform in individual districts (read a summary of the Iredell plan here).  North Carolina got a state Race to the Top grant in 2010.

Even though CMS won't get the $27.8 million it applied for, it's worth reading the plan for boosting achievement at Harding, East Meck, West Charlotte and the schools that feed them. (Here's a one-page synopsis, for those who don't want to tackle the whole thing.)  It offers some details on how Superintendent Heath Morrison may carry out plans he unveiled Monday,  such as creating personal education plans for all students,  recruiting and encouraging highly effective teachers and using technology to help the best instructors reach more students.  Among the intriguing tidbits:  Using a point system "similar to the immediate feedback received in a gaming environment" to motivate students to track and advance their own skills.

The plan also outlines a new approach to teaching math,  which would have been used at four middle schools,  and a  "wraparound"  plan for providing services to students and families in the Harding zone, modeled on the Reid Park project.  I think we'll see all these ideas resurface,  though things may move more slowly without the infusion of federal cash.

Of course,  I'm also eager to hear people's thoughts on the plan Morrison outlined Monday.  I asked him to put his STEM schools to work on cloning reporters,  because otherwise I have no idea how to keep up with all the work that will be going on in 22 new task forces.  If you're wondering,  no,  there's not a place to sign up for membership.  Morrison said he wants to hold the size to about a dozen members per task force,  and he noted that CMS critics will be among the appointees.  The district plans to release names of the leaders  (one CMS staffer and one community member per group)  this week,  with full membership released in December and meetings taking place January to June.

Monday, November 26, 2012

School partnerships aren't easy

Expect a renewed call for partnerships when Superintendent Heath Morrison unveils his plan for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools this evening.

If  Coach Joe White were still on the school board, he might give this observation his trademark "Duh!"  It's pretty obvious that helping kids succeed takes support beyond the schoolhouse.  Charlotte thrives on partnerships, and CMS has a history of working with volunteers and outside groups.

Those of us who have been around awhile know there have been some impressive collaborations. But we've also seen grand coalitions rolled out with fanfare,  only to fizzle.

Last week,  Morrison spoke with Enlace (en-LAH-say, Spanish for "connection"),  a group of Latin American advocates.  Many represent agencies that work with young people.  The Q&A session displayed a great desire to work together,  but also illustrated some of the challenges.

Audience members talked about how difficult it can be to get CMS staff to listen to outside agencies -- or even to find the right person to talk to.  "For nonprofits,  especially minority nonprofits,  working with CMS can be a nightmare,"  one said.

Morrison said groups that want to help can get caught up in turf battles,  especially if two potential collaborators are competing for the same grant.  And he said outside agencies sometimes prepare grant proposals for working in schools without consulting CMS.

"If there were easy answers to this work,  there wouldn't be a need for great people to come do it,"  Morrison said.

He said his staff is working to make the CMS website easier to navigate,  and he's thinking about creating a help desk to provide personal guidance. But his big move is launching a department of community partnerships and family engagement. Communications director LaTarzja Henry will officially make the move to that post Dec. 1.

It's not a new idea to put someone in charge of volunteers and partnerships.  But strengthening these connections is one of Morrison's signature issues,  and he says he's seldom seen anyone as passionate about this kind of work as Henry.  "LaTarzja has a heart as big as this state," he told me.

I've worked with Henry for more than a decade,  spanning a vast array of triumphs,  troubles and change in CMS.  Henry takes the work very seriously,  herself not so much.  Maybe because my own style is similar,  I've found we can work together and stay focused on the big issues,  even when we don't get exactly what we want from each other. That seems like a good start for building partnerships across this sprawling and fractured community.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Give thanks -- let's dance!

"The Gratitude Dance" recently popped up on a friend's Facebook page.  I've watched it several times,  and it always makes me grin.

At this time of year,  it's worth remembering that every single school has things going on that ought to make us dance.  If you've ever seen a student learn to read or suddenly realize that algebra makes sense, you might want to pump your arms and stomp your feet.  If you know a teacher who stays up late trying to craft a lesson, a parent modeling hard work and respect, a volunteer giving up precious time to have lunch with a student or a principal going the extra mile to make the staff feel good, go ahead and do a jig.  And yes, let's do a few steps for the public officials who give their best in an often-thankless job.

Hope (left) and Holly waiting their turn
I always get a personal kick out of meeting students who think journalism is cool.  Just before school let out for Thanksgiving break,  Superintendent Heath Morrison closed out his tour of 159 Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools with a news conference at Hawk Ridge Elementary. Among the crowd of reporters,  microphones and cameras stood fifth-graders Holly Wade and Hope Reynen.

Holly asked the superintendent about the best part of his job  (meeting young people, he said),  his inspiration for becoming a superintendent and how the Board of Education works.

"Do you ever feel nervous knowing that your decisions affect every school in CMS?"  she concluded.

Not exactly nervous,  Morrison said,  but  "I worry about it,  absolutely.  It's an incredible responsibility."

Hope handed him a copy of the Hawk Ridge News and they walked away beaming.  Holly said afterward she was plenty nervous,  but thrilled about getting the interview for their next edition.

A reporter in the making?  "It seems like fun,"  Holly said,  "and I like writing."

Yep. I'm doing the gratitude dance.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The crystal ball on Morrison

Heath Morrison marks his 100th day as superintendent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools on Wednesday,  and will present his strategic plan for the district on Monday.  Here are my predictions for what we might see,  based on what he's said and done so far and what was in a plan for his previous district in Reno, Nev.

*More choices, from new magnet programs to alternatives for struggling students. I'm guessing some will focus on top performers  (Morrison created new magnets for gifted students in Reno)  and some will create small settings where at-risk students can get back on track to graduate.

*A study of how well CMS graduates fare in higher education and,  to the extent there's data available,  the work force. Morrison has been emphatic about a dual focus: Boosting graduation rates but also making sure CMS diplomas are a meaningful predictor of success.

*A push to change the way teachers are recruited, assigned, rewarded and,  when necessary,  removed.  The state is driving some of this,  and Morrison has jumped in with talks to principals and a major shakeup of the CMS human resources department. I wouldn't be surprised to see something similar to Reno's "hiring for attitude" program,  along with some version of the "culture of respect" work done there.

*Efforts to confront low expectations for minority students, based on Glenn Singleton's "Courageous Conversations About Race." Morrison worked with Singleton in each of his last two districts,  and has distributed the book to CMS board members.

*A beefed-up parent engagement push,  including efforts to reach families who don't speak English.  Morrison has said Parent University is a good first step, but not enough.

*New efforts related to school safety and bullying,  with students playing a role in shaping their own programs.  CMS hasn't faced a crisis on this front in Morrison's short tenure,  but he has identified safety as a perennial top issue.

*Creation of a new set of data and goals to measure CMS progress.  Morrison opted not to pursue the  CMS school progress reports this year,  instead relying on the state's version.  But there's no way he'll let the state-mandated letter grades debuting this year stand as the only or main gauge of school success.

*Administrative reorganization, which is already underway.  Morrison lights up when he talks about process and procedure.  It's deadly dull to many of us,  but the organizational framework will shape how well the rest of this stuff works.

*A huge roster of task forces, public meetings and surveys designed to make sure everyone with an interest in CMS has a voice. If you care about the many issues on the table,  it's a safe bet you'll have a chance to step up and get involved in the coming year.

Monday, November 19, 2012

N.C. teacher unions: Weak, but ...

The impact of North Carolina teacher unions,  or even whether there is such a thing,  is a frequent point of debate on this blog.  A recent study on the strength of U.S. teacher unions,  done by The Fordham Institute and Education Reform Now,  indicates there's good reason for the back-and-forth.

North Carolina got a weak overall rating  (read the state profile here),  with relatively low membership and financing for the N.C. Association of Educators and  "the most restrictive bargaining laws in the nation."

"It is one of only five states that prohibit collective bargaining in education," the report says. "No union or professional association may collect agency fees from non-members. The state does not allow teacher strikes."

But the study notes that many in North Carolina perceive the influence of the union to be strong,  and that the state's laws are more aligned with traditional union interests than those of most other states.

"North Carolina does not support performance pay, does not require districts to consider teacher performance in determining layoffs, and does not include student learning in tenure decisions. Further, teachers are dismissed due to poor performance at a lower rate than most other states."

The report,   released just before the election of Republican Pat McCrory as governor,  notes that union influence is likely to decline further with the departure of Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue.

South Carolina's union standing was rated among the nation's weakest  (read the S.C. profile here).

Friday, November 16, 2012

Does CMS face media attack pack?

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is the victim of relentless and unfair negative news coverage, according to many of the employees and community members who talked to Terry Abbott for his study of CMS communications.

"Asked their thoughts about the news media's coverage of CMS, it didn't take long for district officials,  staff,  and parents to respond,"  Abbott wrote.  "The media coverage of the district is considered almost universally among these groups to be negative."

Analysis of news coverage is a healthy thing.  But the tendency to sort it into  "positive"  and  "negative"  is a lot like a doctor using  "sick"  and  "healthy"  as the only diagnostic categories  --  it just doesn't tell you much.  Some stories are clearly good or bad news, but most don't fit the labels.  A straightforward news report can make you happy or tick you off,  depending on what you think of the information being reported.  Much of what I write  --  including the recent front-page article on the studies commissioned by Superintendent Heath Morrison  --  includes  "negative"  information about problems and  "positive"  information about efforts to solve them.

Abbott,  a former press secretary for the Houston Independent School district who now runs Drive West Communications,  didn't try to analyze actual coverage.  He was looking for,  well,  problems and solutions.  While his report makes it clear there's significant frustration over coverage,  it also shows the same people acknowledging that the controversies my colleagues and I have covered are firmly based in reality. One of the most fascinating things about the 56-page report was getting a glimpse of some of the behind-the-scenes tension surrounding school closings, market-adjustment raises, unexplained principal departures, the launch of "bring your own technology" and the rollout of 2012 test scores.

The report makes it clear that rebuilding confidence will take more than pumping out more positive press releases and reviving the CMS cable channel  (though those are among the recommendations).  Morrison says he's working to make sure departments work more efficiently together, get their facts straight, understand public concerns and communicate clearly with employees, reporters and the public.  One sure-fire way to reduce  "negative"  coverage is to avert the errors, delays and missteps that spawn it.

Morrison may also be trying to strike a sterner stance with the press corps.  Every time he talked about the studies and employee survey results released this week,  he told reporters he considers this  "a test case" for coverage.  He said he's taking a risk by being open about reports critical of CMS,  and noted that it would be easy to pick out a few lines and sensationalize them.  He told his  "media partners"  to consider it a homework assignment to take a more balanced approach.  "I will be watching who does a good job with that and who doesn't,"  he said at the school board meeting.

I'm not sure how the superintendent envisions that playing out.  But if nothing else, it was a brilliant strategy for making sure time-crunched reporters wade through dozens of pages of institutional analysis in search of those lines he doesn't want us to use.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

CMS hiring: What went wrong?

Human resources is a vital function of public education that remains largely hidden from public view.  This week's audit of HR in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools confirms what a lot of employees and applicants have been saying:  The system designed to get top teachers and administrators into crucial jobs hasn't been working for a long time.

"The HR Department has been struggling for a number of years  --  most speak frankly in the system about HR's functionality as disappointing and counter-productive to the reform effort the rest of the system is experiencing,"  consultant Elizabeth Arons of the Urban Schools Human Capital Academy concluded after interviewing about 50 CMS employees and community members.

A lot of rules and regulations come with the turf  --  remember, CMS depends on state, federal and county governments for its money  --  but Superintendent Heath Morrison says much of the  "compliance culture" that has dragged the department down is based not on legal constraints but on tradition and systems that make supervisors' lives easier at the cost of the people they're supposed to be helping.

"We're going to be looking at every opportunity to remove barriers,"  he said at a Wednesday news conference.

One school of thought holds that the best way to bust government bureaucracy is to bring in people from private industry.  The last two CMS HR chiefs took that route:  Mo Ambler had worked for Blockbuster, Cox Communications and Pepsico,  and Daniel Habrat came from Wachovia.  Both left under unfavorable circumstances. Former Superintendent Peter Gorman declined to renew Ambler's contract in 2010, and Habrat resigned just before the highly critical report on his department was released.

Morrison is turning to an educator  --  former teacher, principal and central office administrator Kelly Gwaltney  --  to restore confidence in HR. He calls her "unorthodox in a good way,"  with a knowledge of what principals need and a management style that's driven by customer service.

Morrison says it's too simplistic to conclude that outsiders can't do the job.  He said he expects Gwaltney to create a leadership team that taps the strengths of education and private industry.

Some of the recommendations she'll be working with make obvious sense,  even to a layperson like me.  For instance:  "Immediately redesign the applicant process so that a one-time online application makes the applicant available for all positions. ... There is a strong perception throughout the district that applicants have to  'jump through hoops' and that HR  'does not take good care of applicants.'  "  Yep.  I've heard that many times.

Many of the others are focused on processes and procedures that are no doubt important,  but not as obvious to folks outside the system.  I'll be eager to hear from those of you inside CMS about how the coming changes play out.   The fate of a whole lot of children and families rides on this.

I suspect a lot of you,  like me,  are working your way through more than 150 pages of reports released Tuesday  (read the communications report here,  the organizational review here and the results of the employee survey here). Pass along your thoughts and questions. There's a lot of change ahead for CMS,  and these reports are an early road map.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Hooray: Raleigh-to-English translation!

I found something on the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools website that makes me want to cheer:  A  "2012 legislative update"  that summarizes all the public education bills the state legislature approved this year.

Keeping up with the action in Raleigh,  looking up legislation,  trying to decide whether I have the correct final version and deciphering the legalese has always been challenging for me,  and I have more training and experience in these things than most folks.  The new 10-page guide summarizes each bill in plain English,  with a link to the actual legislation.

I learned,  for instance,  that starting Dec. 1 it will be a crime for students to "cyberbully" teachers,  including creating fake websites and posting private information or altered images.  I got the clearest explanation I've seen of how the new third-grade literacy requirements will work.

In the "On the Horizon" look ahead to the 2013 session,  I found a good synopsis of likely developments on performance pay and teacher tenure.  And this explanation made me realize why so many of us founder in the maze of Raleigh lawmaking:  "During the short session this past summer, the Senate leadership supported a bill called the Excellent Public Schools Act (SB 795)  –  not to be confused with the Excellent Public Schools Act incorporated into the Budget Bill (HB 950).  While SB 795 did not pass,  it is almost guaranteed to resurface in the upcoming session,  which begins on January 30, 2013."

If these updates continue in real time next year,  they'll be a boon to all of us trying to understand and/or influence the state decisions that shape our schools.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Will extra school days pay off?

Project LIFT is looking at spending up to $4.7 million a year to add 20 school days for students in nine west Charlotte schools. When Zone Superintendent Denise Watts recently updated the school board on the prospect, board member Eric Davis had a question:  How will you measure the academic value of those extra days, apart from all the other improvement efforts?

"That's something we struggle with,"  Watts said.  The $55 million, five-year project to improve the life prospects of some 7,100 students is working on several fronts, from recruiting better teachers to strengthening family involvement.

If it works,  one of the challenges will be teasing out the value of each change.

When it comes to shrinking summer break and adding school days,  Watts and her crew start with the premise that the kids who are most at risk of failure are the ones most likely to lose ground during long school breaks. They're showing this video to illustrate the problem.

They're also looking at reports and research,  including this American School Board Journal article about summer programs that work, this WestEd summary of efforts to extend the school year, and this 2010 summary of the academic research on the benefits.  Short version:  There are signs that extra time in school can make a difference,  but it's no silver bullet and it costs a lot.

This past summer,  LIFT went with the less radical option of offering voluntary summer programs to about 1,700 students,  at no charge to their families.  Some went to BELL camps (read an Observer article about this summer's BELL programs here).  That program did pre- and post-testing that showed some benefits, Watts said.  But about 100 students who were offered the chance to attend didn't accept,  illustrating one of the challenges of optional summer camps,  Watts told the board.

Other students went to Freedom Schools, a summer reading program that's growing in the Charlotte area (read an Observer article here).  That effort got "mixed reviews" and doesn't have the same kind of data on academic gains,  Watts said.

Skeptics and cynics have been vocal about Project LIFT.  Some of you will say all this shows that it's a waste of money,  that  "those kids"  are destined for failure and  "those families"  aren't pulling their weight.

At this point,  I'm willing to give the leaders of the philanthropic board and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools credit for being candid about the immensity of the challenge they've tackled.  Breaking the cycle of poverty and school failure is extraordinarily difficult. Even measuring the results is going to be tough.  If the leaders were whipping out glowing reports at the outset,  I'd be much more wary of their willingness to do that work.

Davis told Watts that he expects her to ensure that CMS can measure the value of investing in a longer school year.

" 'Ensure' is a strong word,"  Watts said.

"It sure is,"  Davis replied.  "That's why I'm using it."

Youth vote for leadership and food

Almost 100,000 Mecklenburg students cast ballots in the Kids Voting mock election this year. Like real voters in this county, they gave President Obama a wide margin over Mitt Romney and Pat McCrory the slenderest of victories over Walter Dalton for governor.  The kids liked the Libertarian candidates more than their adult counterparts,  though.

The most interesting part was their take on questions posed by local officials.  Students who voted are strongly in favor of city/county consolidation (61 percent).  Many want county commissioners to use any extra money to improve services for people in need (48 percent),  though tax cuts followed with 23 percent.

As Superintendent Heath Morrison ponders broadening the educational options in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, he asked the youth to weigh in.  Chief of Staff Earnest Winston says the three questions submitted by CMS reflect some early discussions about additions to the public-school menu.

When asked about their favorite option for a new magnet program, "leadership" was the most popular (26 percent), followed by "museum" (20 percent) and "broadcast/communication"  (18 percent).  The "residential" option was a definite last place with 7 percent,  though it's hard to say whether students didn't like the idea of a public boarding school or just didn't know what the unfamiliar term meant.

The career/tech program that got the most votes was culinary (25 percent),  followed by cosmetology and construction (20 percent each).  And when asked what they need most in the classroom,  technology topped the list of four options with a hefty 52 percent  (there was nothing about teachers on the list).

The results aren't binding,  of course,  but Winston says Morrison will look at them.  "Engaging students is nothing new for us,  but Dr. Morrison has placed a greater emphasis on that,"  he said.  "We want to engage them in the conversation about their education."

I'm seeing partnership potential here.  The Observer has quite a bit of free space these days,  including an inactive cafeteria.  I've tasted the output of East Meck's culinary arts program,  and feel confident that our staff would provide eager taste-testers if CMS wanted to locate a culinary/communications magnet here.  For that matter, we could turn one room into a dorm,  add the residential component and help staff those pesky night and weekend shifts.

Friday, November 9, 2012

CMS crafts rules for school visits

How open will Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools be to visitors,  what are the rules for such visits and what can lead parents or others to being banned from school property?  Those are some of the questions Superintendent Heath Morrison and the school board are taking up in a new policy that's up for a public hearing Tuesday.

Morrison says CMS needs to be more thoughtful and consistent in its procedures,  and this looks like an early example.  The proposed policy calls for the superintendent and principals to craft rules to encourage openness while protecting the educational environment,  including  "reasonable limits on the frequency or conditions of school visits by parents or other visitors." The policy also addresses people on the sex-offender registry and the type of behavior that's prohibited,  such as threats,  vandalism,  disorderly conduct,  "rude or riotous noise"  and  "profane, lewd, obscene or abusive language, gestures or other written or electronic communication."

The policy also addresses how schools should deal with violators and calls for the superintendent to develop procedures for banning people from CMS property.

None of this strikes me as new or shocking.  Schools already have their own processes for handling visitors,  and parents and others have been banned for various violations.  (Remember the "Myers Park Mooner"  who was banned after dropping his pants during the 2011 graduation ceremony?)  The board policy,  combined with any procedures that follow,  just spell out the terms more clearly.

Families may want to take note and get engaged.  I've seen several parents come before the board to complain about being banned from their children's schools.  Anyone who wants to speak can sign up by calling 980-343-5139 by noon Tuesday,  or do so at the meeting.  There should be a second public hearing before a vote in December.

Bonus link:  A reader passed along this EdWeek blog summarizing five big issues facing U.S. Education Arne Duncan in the next term.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

How safe is your school?

The updated North Carolina school report cards are out,  bearing a wealth of data for families who are thinking about where their kids should go to school next year.

School safety is always a big question,  and these reports offer a couple of key data points.  The most meaningful one in my eyes is the short-term suspension rate  (once you've gone to a school's report card,  click the  "Safe, Orderly & Caring Schools"  tab).

These numbers always remind me of the time a teacher friend called to chew me out:  "You've listed some schools as having more than 100 suspensions per 100 students. That's obviously wrong."  You'd think so,  but sadly,  every year some Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools have so many repeat offenders that they end up with more suspensions than students.  This year I checked CMS high schools and found West Charlotte with 176 suspensions per 100 students and Harding with 157  (on the low end were Providence with 4.56 and Ardrey Kell with 7.55).

If you're a regular reader of this blog,  you know what's coming next:  Numbers never tell the full story, but they help you ask good questions. Low suspension rates can indicate a principal is overlooking offenses to make the numbers look good.  High ones may signal a faculty that's cracking down to change a culture.  But when suspension rates are high,  parents and students deserve good answers about what's going on.

The more eye-catching number is the one at the top of the safety page:  The number and rate of criminal and violent acts at each school.  My quibble is that it takes too long to compile and report this data.  The numbers you're looking at in late 2012,  potentially to judge school selections for 2013-14,  are from the 2010-11 school year.  This is also a category where you definitely want to get beyond raw numbers.  Here's the state report that breaks down the type of offenses at each school.  Even then,  ask more questions about what happened and how it was handled.  "Assault on school personnel,"  for instance,  can be anything from a teen attacking a teacher to a kindergartener lashing out during a tantrum.

There are detailed breakdown of test scores under the "High Student Performance" tab.  They're pretty self-explanatory.  One warning:  The numbers listed under the end-of-grade performance breakdown for elementary and middle schools won't match the more familiar composite score.  The composite is the combined pass rate for reading,  math and science.  The report-card breakdown lists the percent of students who passed both reading and math,  which is almost always lower.  That's arguably the best measure of students who are ready to move up to the next grade;  it just tends to make me do a double-take.

The  "Quality Teachers"  tab offers a lot of data about credentials and experience.  I'm not convinced it tells much about how good the faculty really is, but it's worth knowing.

The district report card,  found by clicking the district name at the top of the list of schools,  offers some additional information,  such as the principal turnover rate.  With all the talk about CMS principal churn last year,  I was curious how that would look.  The tally shows 15 percent of principals left the district in 2011-12,  up from 9 percent the previous year.  That's well over the state average of 11 percent and Wake County's 8 percent rate.  But it's close to the turnover rates for Union County (14 percent)  and Guilford County (13 percent).

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

What's it all mean for education?

Democrat June Atkinson won another term as N.C. superintendent,  defeating Republican John Tedesco by a 54-to-46 percent margin,  according to final but unofficial returns.

Tedesco is a member of the Wake County school board,  which is in turmoil over leadership and student assignment.  The News & Observer reports that Atkinson had used that against him,  saying he was surrounded by  "a cloud of chaos."  (I can't help but grin:  When I started the education beat in 2002,  many in Raleigh saw Charlotte as the land of educational upheaval and lunacy.)

But choosing the nominal head of public schools in North Carolina may be the least significant education decision voters made Tuesday.  Consider:

The re-election of President Obama means the reforms driven by Education Secretary Arne Duncan and the Race to the Top program will continue.  Those efforts have had significant influence on testing,  performance pay,  school closings and other strategies in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and statewide.  Individual districts,  including CMS and Union County,  are preparing additional plans to compete for more federal money.

Republican Pat McCrory's ascent to the governor's mansion teams him with a GOP-dominated legislature that's just starting to flex its muscle on public education. Charter schools are proliferating in the Charlotte region since that body lifted the 100-school limit,  and the effects of legislative mandates to end "social promotion" and give schools letter grades will start taking shape this year.  As Charlotte mayor,  McCrory didn't play a big role in education,  but he'll bring a deep knowledge of local issues and personalities to the halls of Raleigh.

And the Democratic sweep in the Mecklenburg County commissioners' election will likely have implications when CMS brings its budget requests in coming years.

Meanwhile,  the  "nonpartisan"  CMS board sat out this election cycle.  It's hard to believe it has only been a year since Ericka Ellis-Stewart and Mary McCray won their first elected offices,  then took the chairmanship and vice chairmanship of the school board.  The leadership transition brought some rough spots for the board,  but the nine members have been spending a lot of time in team-building exercises designed to help them recognize and value each other's strengths.  In the short run,  we may see how that plays out when the annual election of the chair and vice chair comes up in early December.  They'll also be engaging with the other elected bodies as they prepare a legislative request list and start talking about reviving recession-stalled construction and renovation plans.

One possibility:  A school bond vote in 2013, the first since 2007.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Mo says no to more dough

For the fifth year in a row, Guilford County Superintendent Maurice "Mo" Green has rejected a raise that the school board wanted to give him,  the News & Record reports.  Some of you will remember Green from his time as deputy superintendent and lawyer for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

The item on Green's contract extension was among the nuggets piled up in my inbox after two weeks of vacation.  And yes,  after two blog-free weeks I just couldn't resist that headline.

Here's a roundup of other tidbits:

*MeckEd has published its annual roundup on charter schools,  just as parents are preparing for the 2013 school selection season.

*Reader Deb McLean passed along this link to a letter from a teacher resigning from Union County Schools in disgust with North Carolina's focus on testing kids and rating teachers.

*Two CMS/Queens University partnerships to prepare principals --  Leaders for Tomorrow and the School Executive Leadership Academy  --  have been recognized by the Alliance to Reform Education Leadership,  part of the George W. Bush Presidential Center.

*UNCC math professor Harold Reiter has been honored for his work with MATHCOUNTS and other efforts to develop math skills among younger students.  Reiter, who deserves extra credit for his patience in explaining math to journalists, received the UNC Board of Governors award for public service.

*And if you're looking for an Election Day smile,  watch this video of Heather England's third graders at Smithfield Elementary singing "Vote Me Maybe," a takeoff on Carly Rae Jepsen's "Call Me Maybe."

Monday, November 5, 2012

Playing the CMS lottery

Nicole Meacham,  whose son is approaching school age,  sent a timely query about the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools assignment lottery.

"Does CMS offer any workshops or a single web site that explains what to do?"  she asked.  "We are still 1-2 years from our son entering kindergarten, but want to be prepared.  Based on your knowledge of the school system, where is the best place to start?  I’ve visited the CMS web site and it’s a complete maze."

Late fall is a good time for parents of preschoolers to start thinking about the coming school year.  Not only does CMS hold its magnet lottery in January,  but many private and charter schools take applications around the same time.  Children who will turn 5 by Aug. 31, 2013,  are eligible to start public kindergarten,  and in some cases children who turn 4 by that date might enter public school next year  (more about that to come).

So where to start for CMS?  First,  locate out your child's neighborhood school and check it out.  If you decide to send your child there,  you won't need to enter the lottery.  Just enroll your child before school starts.

But if you want to consider a magnet school,  you need to enroll your child by Dec. 7 to be eligible for the lottery.  Parents can check out the magnet offerings online,  and there will be a magnet fair on Jan. 21 with representatives from all the schools.  You can also check out previous years' lottery results to get some sense of the chances of getting into any given magnet program.

Here's the part that catches some parents off guard:  If you want to get kids into the popular Montessori magnets,  it's best to apply for prekindergarten.  There's a fee,  but it's lower than most private prekindergarten programs and it guarantees a spot in those programs for kindergarten and beyond.

CMS also offers Bright Beginnings prekindergarten at several schools.  It's free,  with admission based on a screening for kindergarten skills (children who need extra help get in).  That's not done through the magnet lottery;  find details about that screening and registration process here.